Entering today’s game against the Los Angeles Angels, the Cleveland Indians remain in first place in the AL Central with a 10-9 record. That’s quite an odd feat alone, but then one must discern which individual has been the most impressive thus far for the Tribe. After looking around a little bit, I’ve got a top four candidate, and it’s someone no one expected to be in this position.
Derek Lowe, a 38-year-old starter, made his way to Cleveland in a small late October 2011 trade with the Atlanta Braves. After notably collapsing down the stretch last year while the Braves faltered to miss the playoffs, Lowe was pretty much given away to Cleveland. Atlanta ate up $10 million of his $15 million salary, and hardly got anything in return (just Single-A LHP Chris Jones).
But, with Lowe on the mound today against the Angels, he’s been one of the top few most valuable players to the Indians in 2012.
Looking back at Lowe’s career trajectory, many people believed that last season was supposed to be the beginning of the end. He never had a dominant year after signing a big contract with the Atlanta Braves in 2009. Over his three seasons, he provided a 40-39 record with a 4.57 ERA. That ballooned because he finished 6-14 with a 6.04 ERA through his his final 20 starts last year.
Sure, for many years, Lowe had been a successful, albeit not quite dominant starter for Boston and Los Angeles. He’s never been on the disabled list in his career. Not too many pitchers compile over 150 wins and two All-Star games by chance, and he was pretty consistent for quite a long stretch. He became a full-time starter in 2002 after spending his first several years mostly as a reliever then closer, and take a look at the remarkable health and consistency.
Lowe historically has been a GREAT pitcher at inducing hitters into groundballs, while his strikeout numbers aren’t great and he limits opponents’ opportunities with few walks. Overall, there was a fairly bad stretch from 2003-2004, but there are two dominant trends on the surface: First, Lowe must have really liked Los Angeles as that’s where really shined consistently, and second, he seemed to be losing his stuff recently.
That final storyline doesn’t necessarily translate when looking at FIP (fielding-independent pitching, which provides a more accurate representation of what a pitcher actually controls), but that’s not what fans cared about. He wasn’t expected to come to Cleveland to be a stud like he used to be, and, quite possibly, it seemed that he was just moving on to a new team for one final year because of his massive contract.
I distinctly recall — and still have the text messages to prove — that my diehard sports fan family members were none too thrilled about the pick-up of Lowe. Here’s what my brother Adam said about the deal: “I didn’t know we needed another starter, I guess we don’t trust the young guys? … He has started 30 or more games 10 straight seasons wow. And the 4 years before that 60 plus relief appearances. At age 38, I’m not sure how sustainable that is.”
Lo and behold, however, Lowe came out firing in spring training for the Tribe and hasn’t quite stopped. Manager Manny Acta said before the year that it seemed he came to town with something to prove.
“I think he’s on a mission to prove he’s got some baseball left,” Indians’ manager Manny Acta said Monday [March 5]. “He had a rough last month of the season last year. But he showed up at our camp with a lot of enthusiasm and he looks good.”
Whether it was fixing some sloppy mechanics or adjusting the use of his fastball, something seemed to tick fairly quickly for Lowe with the Indians. In his first start of the season, the third game of the opening series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he went seven dominant innings with two runs (both unearned) and just five hits. He then allowed 11 hits but minimized damage to only three runs in an 8-3 win over Kansas City in his next outing.
His third start was his worst of the year, where he went just four innings after giving up four runs on eight hits and six uncharacteristic walks in a loss against Seattle. But he righted himself again last Tuesday with his third quality start of the season, permitting just one run in six innings with a season-high five strikeouts.
Let’s take a look at his stat line this season to see what’s in there to like.
As a team, the Indians have a 4.30 ERA this season. The starting pitchers then have a 4.21 ERA, despite their hot start. Further, if you take away Lowe’s contributions, the other starters have a pretty mediocre 4.55 ERA on the year in 15 outings. Then also take away Jeanmar Gomez, who has only pitched 13.1 innings in three starts, and the other three starters are sitting at 4.90.
Thus far, it appears that Lowe’s groundball rate is a bit lower than normal, and that one abnormal six-walk game has pushed his BB/9 ratio a bit higher than years past. Small sample size can do some crazy things, which means you have to take into consideration his .333 BABIP, showing that balls hit into play are landing for hits a bit more often than you’d normally expect. His FIP is high, but right around where he has been, and you’d expect the other stats to remain pretty consistent.
My biggest point is that without Lowe, the Indians would be in a much worse point through 19 games. Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, the top two starters, continue to struggle and worries continue to mount there. On the offensive side, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jack Hannahan and Travis Hafner all have been surprisingly good, and thus Lowe belongs in the conversation with those guys for the Indians MVP thus far.
Lowe will be on the mound again today at 1:05 p.m. as the Tribe looks for a series win against the LA Angels in hopes of maintaining its first-place lead in the AL Central.